28 August 2011


Steven Volk. Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable and Couldn't. HarperOne, 2011.

This is a really good book on the paranormal, because Steven Volk, a mainstream journalist, takes the sensible and rarely used line on these topics, which is that he just doesn't know what it all represents and seeks to get beyond the usual believer/skeptic yah-boo stuff.
He sees many of their arguments being conducted at the primitive emotional level of the amygdala, that's the part of the brain which deals with raw emotion such as the flight or fight response. This is perhaps a sophisticated way of suggesting that too many people on all sides in these fields think with their guts rather than their heads.

Volk was drawn into this area by his own childhood experiences of being in a 'haunted house', or at the least one plagued by very strange bangs in the night, which seemed to go on until a priest blessed the house, after which they stopped, or at least until another family moved in. He struggles to grasp at memories of this and quizzes his relatives, perhaps in the process drawing closer.

In the book he starts with the world of the Near Death Experience and the role of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who began collecting these stories back in the 1970s. He acknowledges that she was a very complicated character, insightful, genuinely compassionate and collected some very odd stories which people had been reluctant to talk about, yet she was "prone to exaggeration", told some very strange tales herself, and ended up as the dupe of a couple of very shady "mediums".

From this he enters the world of academic parapsychology where he encounters many of the complications and claims and counter claims, but also finds many of the actual working parapsychologists are pretty feet on the ground people who disclaim making grand metaphysical claims. It is perhaps a pity that they tend not to be the ones who write the popular books on the subject. He looks at a whole range of topics such as the famous military remote viewing experiments, as well as some of the other disputed claims

He then interviews Dr Stuart Hameroff an anaesthetist who has collaborated with Roger Penrose in presenting a theory of consciousness based on quantum effects in the microtubials in the brain. This is a controversial idea to say the least, even without Hameroff's extension of theory to argue for the possibility of some kind of perhaps transient survival of consciousness after death. To be honest I cannot see how the evocation of quantum processes makes the 'hard problem of consciousness' any easier. In it is surely no more or less easy or difficult to imagine how consciousness could emerge from quantum processes than from the actions of neurones.

There is an amusing account of Hameroff addressing a conference in which Richard Dawkins was in the audience, Dawkins's blood pressure clearly rising to the point where he was in danger of having a stroke.

Dawkins is, I suspect, a fairly good example of what can happen to otherwise sane and sensible people when they get religion. Don't confuse religion with theism, Dawkins' atheism is just as much a religion as any other, with its claims of unique truth, salvic power, sense of spiritual superiority, evangelical zeal, even the sense of end times upon us. Like other religions it constructs its own surrogate tribe of the saved: 'Brights' (the children of light and reason) against the fallen others (The 'Dims'  presumably the children of darkness, mired in the mud of theism and superstition).

There is then a detour into the world of ufology, where Volk notes that the disputes are even more rancorous, and the strange story of the Stephensville UFO, which includes a character who has a close encounter and later claims harassment by military overflights. My sceptical thought is that perhaps helicopters and planes were always flying over this individual's land but he didn't pay them any attention until after his strange experience (whatever the cause of that was).

Volk then goes to meet Edgar Mitchell, the ex-astronaut and his Institute of Noetic Science, I rather suspect that had Volk mentioned Mitchell's name to some members of the Parapsychological Association he would have encountered another example of tribalism. In some ways the experiences of the astronaut and the subsequent problems have similarities with those of the veterans discussed later in the book; they have ventured out in one case, torn out in the other, from the bounds of the given world and returned burdened with incommunicable knowledge which sets them apart from the rest of us. Of course there are profound differences in that the knowledge of the astronauts is of itself a positive experience, that of the veterans often an extremely negative one.

The final sections of this book deal with a number of therapies and studies which lie on the edges of the paranormal, such as Andrew Newberg's studies which seem to show the positive effects of prayer and meditation (it is unclear if it matters what you pray to or meditate on) Another is Allan Botkin's 'Induced After Death Communications' in which, apparently, certain eye movements can induce visions of the diseased who communicate with the experient, a technique developed for Vietnam veterans. Botkin refuses to speculate on the ontological significance of these visions, but from the example given I rather suspect that the 'dead' have a tendency to say what the experient wants to hear, or the therapist thinks they ought to here. The third example is Stephen La Berge's studies of lucid dreaming, which I suspect really does give some clues as to what goes on in a wide range of paranormal experiences.

Volk is to be congratulated on trying to cross the tribal frontiers and point out the many doubts and complexities that those of certain faith on either side tend to overlook. Yet I am not sure he finally succeeds, because the endorsements on the publishers blurb all come from tribal elders of the paranormalist community, including one or two mention of those whose names are likely to stir the amygdala of a number of academic parapsychologists almost as much as 'skeptics'. Crossing boundaries is perhaps not something that publicity departments are particularly good at. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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